Colonial Players’ These Shining Lives
Take an intimate look at private lives affected by corporate callousness.
Colonial Players has kept audiences engaged in a season that has swung from the ridiculous to reality: from a time machine to Death Row, and now from a tabloid fantasy to the Industrial Revolution. In Melanie Marnich’s These Shining Lives, a fictional treatment of a factual tragedy, we meet four victims of radium poisoning whose plight spawned a landmark Supreme Court decision on corporate responsibility and workers’ safety. Despite the legalistic dénouement, this story is less Erin Brokovich than an intimate look at the private lives affected by corporate callousness.
If you’re a fan of television’s Big Love or The Big C, you’re already familiar with Marnich’s work. Or perhaps you were lucky enough to catch this show’s 2008 debut at Baltimore’s Center Stage. Regardless, this touching chronicle of friendship and suffering will arouse your anger and sympathy for Catherine (Sarah Wade), Charlotte (Krissy McGregor), Frances (Josette Dubois), Pearl (Aricia Skidmore-Williams) and thousands like them who, for over a decade, decorated watch faces with a paint composed of radium powder and their own saliva.
From the Roaring Twenties to the Great Depression, these working girls were heady with newfound freedoms and “easy money” thanks to the newly discovered element thought to impart a healthy glow and beneficial side effects. They got $8 a day; they lost teeth, jaws, limbs, their jobs, their good names and their lives.
Through it all, the men around them tiptoed around the obvious. Mr. Reed (David Carter), the supervisor, kept a watchful eye on their degeneration even as he denied the hazards of the job. The company doctor (Eric Hufford) prescribed aspirin and rest. Catherine’s adoring husband Tom (Ben Carr), suspicious from the start, nevertheless grew resentful of and dependent on his wife’s work even as she
withered before his unbelieving eyes.
The powerful story could have been more affecting with a more elaborate set. For despite luminescent designs on the floor and walls, the recycled kitchenette and worktables are ineffective substitutes for a deathbed and courtroom, and even those pieces remain unchanged throughout the production. Period costumes add a colorful touch to an otherwise drab environment, as do the scratchy recordings. But a vintage cathedral radio and more period embellishments would have added a whole new dimension of reality and interest.
From a performance standpoint, Wade glows as Katie, from her first ecstatic entrance to her dying breath, meshing with Hufford with palpable chemistry in last weekend’s fine understudy performance of husband Tom. Carter brings a charming smarminess to the role of the calculating boss. McGregor, Skidmore-Williams and Dubois construct a decent rapport as the smart aleck, the jokester and the moralist. Yet beyond a couple limps and a sling, they are less convincing than Wade in their personas and their frailties. Where are the crutches, the bruises, the pallor, the blacked-out teeth and the physical manifestation of persistent pain? Without them, the tragedy feels less immediate than it should.
Still, this show does a good job of reminding us that precious time is ticking and we should never take a moment of our shining lives for granted.